December 15, 1791 marks the most momentous day in human history. On that day, the first ten amendments to the then-new United States Constitution were ratified, placing severe limits — for the first time in in thousands of years — on the power of government over the individual.
Those amendments are commonly called the Bill of Rights. Despite what lawyers, judges, politicians, and policemen would prefer that you believe to the contrary, they are the highest law of the land. They are the result of a compromise agreement between two distinct groups within the ranks of America’s Founding Fathers, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, who wanted a “strong central government” and, led by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, the Anti-Federalists, who didn’t.
To give you an idea of where the lines were drawn, Henry is most famous for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death”. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, kicking the King out of America. He also said, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Hamilton, on the other hand, is said to have wanted to call George Washington “Your Majesty”.
It’s very important to understand that the Bill of Rights was the absolute condition upon which passage of the rest of the Constitution depended. Several states, in fact — Massachussetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, and North Carolina — mentioned that in black and white in what amounts to their provisional articles of ratification: no Bill of Rights, no Constitution. And because that “strong central government”, of which the Federalists were so enamored, derived its authority from the Constitution, no Bill of Rights meant no government altogether.
That’s what it still means, today.
It’s almost equally important to understand clearly that nowhere do the first ten amendments claim to generate rights or to bestow them upon anybody. Instead, the articles recognize the existence of natural human rights that greatly predate both Constitution and Declaration, and prohibit the newly-formed government from violating them. This means that Congress could repeal the First Amendment and yet it would have absolutely no moral impact on the existence of freedom of speech, of religion, or of assembly, since those rights are older than the Constitution.
The Supreme Court could declare grandly that no individual right to own and carry weapons exists, yet that right would go on existing, exactly as it did for tens of thousands of years before America was born.
Why do we say the Bill of Rights is the highest law of the land? Because amendments are only made to change the document in question, and to supersede whatever there is in the main body that contradicts them.
Thus, if the Constitution recognized slavery as a legitimate institution in American society (which, in effect, it does) passage of the 13th Amendment — which forbids “involuntary servitude of any kind” — clearly renders null and void whatever was said earlier about it.
And if the Constitution raises treaties to the same legal level as other laws and the Constitution itself (which it does), they are still inferior to the Bill of Rights and must comply with it or be null and void.
That’s the nature of amendments, after all.
See: Article 6, paragraph 2 at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html
These were all brand new ideas at the end of the 18th century, but they are what America was based on, and what made America great. To any extent that America has been failing or falling part more recently it’s because the Bill of Rights has deteriorated under abuse and neglect.
Naturally, over the past couple of centuries, many power-hungry individuals and groups have tried to get around the guarantees and protections afforded by the Bill of Rights. The first was probably the Alien and Sedition Act, but the Lincoln Administration did horrible damage during the War between the States, suspending habeas corpus and illegally imprisoning thousands of dissenters. World War I saw creation of the Federal Communications Commission, inappropriate to a nation with a First Amendment in its Constitution, and the beginnings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a secret police organization unauthorized by the Constitution. During World War II, Americans of Japanese, German, and Italian descent were sent to concentration camps. Ans perhaps hardest of all on vital concepts expressed by the Bill of Rights was the condition of eternal “cold war” that soon followed.
Since September 11, 2001, the catastrophes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the so-called global “War on Terror”, have been used by government as another excuse, in essence, to switch the Bill of Rights off, and to resume treating people — foreigners and Americans alike — the way they were treated by kings before the Revolution.
It is time — long past time, in fact — to put an end to all this dangerous authoritarian nonsense, and reestablish the Bill of Rights to its proper legal and moral place as the highest law of the land. There are many ways of doing this, but perhaps the easiest and most effective is to celebrate December 15 each year as “Bill of Rights Day”.
Widespread Bill of Rights Day festivities will fun — and a whole new way of kicking off the holiday season — but they will also chill the enthusiasm of the worst among America’s leaders for violating the rights of their constituents. They will demonstrate to the Supreme Court and other judicial entities that they do not have the final say when it comes to rights. They will not be permitted to weasel-word and wiggle-worm the rights of Americans away while we all stand and watch helplessly.
So before you deck the halls with boughs of holly, or light up the Menorah, be sure to decorate said halls with nice portraits of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and even James Madison, a Federalist who nonetheless made an honest, good-faith effort at reconciliation by writing the Bill of Rights himself. Don’t forget Thomas Paine. Fly a snakey Gadsden Flag from your front porch. Buy yourself a tricorn hat. Hang up pretty pictures of 18th century cannon, flintlock rifles, and powder horns — you might even try the real thing — and don’t neglect the modern teeth and claws of Lady Liberty, the semiautomatic pistol, high-cap fighting shotgun, and what is best called the “sport-utility rifle”.
For those who are concerned about newcomers arriving here from other lands who may not know our language or appreciate the values — expressed in the Bill of Rights — that comprise the very heart and soul of what it means to be American, the celebrated document itself is here, in fifteen languages: http://jpfo.org/your10rights/bortranslate.html
Light off some fireworks while you’re at it! If you won’t defend your rights, don’t complain when you lose them.
Happy Bill of Rights Every Day!